Youngkin Wants Tutors for Many Students. Where Will They Come from?

Washington Post photo by Salwan Georges
Parents read books to their children during a program with Coates Family Academy at Lutie Lewis Coates Elementary School in Herndon, Va., on May 11.

Some Virginia educators and administrators are concerned about finding staffing and meeting timelines for a new intensive “high-dosage” tutoring program designed to boost test scores and combat learning loss.

The program, part of the All in VA education plan announced last week by Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R), will require students in grades three through eight to receive three to five hours of tutoring per week for 18 to 36 weeks based on their scores on the Standards of Learning, or SOLs, the state’s annual assessment. A detailed “playbook” sent to school superintendents earlier this week outlines how school districts are expected to implement the program by Oct. 16 – just five weeks after the plan was announced and nearly two months into the school year.

The plan was announced after statewide SOL scores showed little to no improvement from the year before and a continued lag behind pre-pandemic levels. It applies to any students who failed or were identified as being “at-risk” of failing, defined as any student scoring under 400 on their math or reading SOLs. Educators anticipate that in some districts more than half of the students in grades three through eight will qualify for tutoring under the guidance.

One of the biggest concerns for school leaders is how they can find tutors to serve such a large group of students when many school districts are still struggling to fill classrooms with teachers. A report released earlier this week from the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission (JLARC), a watchdog for state lawmakers in the General Assembly, showed that the number of teachers in Virginia’s K-12 system was declining. About 4.8 percent of teaching positions were vacant at the start of the 2023-2024 school year, up from 3.9 percent in the prior school year. The figure hovered around less than 1 percent in years before the pandemic.

Although schools around the country are employing high dosage tutoring to improve learning outcomes post-pandemic, it requires intense resources and funding. High dosage tutoring is a form of tutoring that takes place for at least 30 minutes three or more times a week in one-on-one or in small group settings, and experts say it is most effective when implemented correctly. According to the Institute of Education Sciences, the research arm of the U.S. Department of Education, 37 percent of public schools reported providing high-dosage tutoring in December. But almost half of those schools reported that their efforts were limited due to a lack of funding or ability to find staff.

“I think there’s a huge potential to incrementally integrate more individualized and personalized instruction into the public school day to improve the ways in which we support student learning,” said Matthew Kraft, an associate professor of education at Brown University. “But we would be naive to think that you can snap your fingers and set up a large scale program at the drop of a hat.”

Harry Holloway, math specialist and curriculum coordinator at Clarke County Public Schools, processes SOL data for the district. He estimates between 40 and 60 percent of students of the district’s about 800 eligible students would qualify to receive tutoring and is concerned about getting an effective tutoring program up and running for that many students in a short period of time.

“The timeline appears unreasonable right now,” Holloway said.

Holloway said the goal of the plan was laudable, echoing similar sentiments from other educators interviewed by The Washington Post. It’s an ambitious attempt to serve a wide-sect of students with buy-in from the schools, districts and the state and there’s significant funding behind it. The governor and General Assembly included $418 million in its budget specifically for learning loss recovery. The state education department suggests that 70 percent be used for the tutoring program, 20 percent to expand the Virginia Literacy Act and 10 percent for chronic absenteeism response.

Youngkin said in an interview with reporters on Tuesday that he understood rolling out the tutoring program would be a challenge, but encouraged school leaders to be creative in their approach.

“The first thing we did was get the funding, and the funding is there to pay for three to five hours of intensive tutoring for every child who’s at risk in Virginia,” Youngkin said. “And second of all, we’ve got to roll it out and make it work. It’s important for us to do. We’re going to lose a whole generation if we don’t.”

The Virginia Department of Education did not answer questions in time for publication about how long schools were expected to run the tutoring program for or whether funding would be withheld if they did not launch the program by Oct. 16.

Keith Perrigan, superintendent of Washington County Public Schools, said his district had the seventh highest SOL performance in the state. But after looking at data under the guidance, more than half of the students would qualify for tutoring.

Perrigan, who is the president of the Coalition of Small and Rural Schools of Virginia, said that smaller school districts will have even more challenges in setting up a tutoring program, not only because of a smaller pool of tutors but also because they often have smaller central offices to sort through issues like adjusting schedules or finding bus drivers to accommodate after-school tutoring.

Still, Perrigan was optimistic that school districts would make it work because it was moving toward an important goal.

“We can sit around and complain about it,” he said. “Or we can get to work.”

The playbook is clear that there is room for flexibility in how schools implement their tutoring programs, and that school districts should develop a plan that will best serve their students. But experts raised concerns that the plan allows schools to use a maximum ratio of 10 students to one tutor, which is significantly higher than the maximum of 3 or 4 to 1 ratio that research suggests.

The playbook acknowledges the ratio is not in line with research, but allows flexibility and “time to build a strong tutor pool.”

Nancy Waymack, director for research partnerships and policy for the National Student Support Accelerator at Stanford University, said that high-dosage tutoring is an extremely effective approach. While there will likely be bumps in the program’s implementation, she’s excited to see more tutoring brought into public schools.

“For families with means, tutoring has been the go-to solution for years and years,” Waymack said. “This is moving it into public schools where more and more students can access it that really need it.”